Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris in Ossory on Wednesday, 13th October 2010
Teach us to number our days. Psalm 90;12
There is a centuries old tradition in England of there being a lych gate at the entrance to churchyards. It is the place where the priest of the church meets funerals. In some places there is a stone shelf upon which mourners in times past would have placed the coffin as they waited for the priest. The lych gate was a reminder of one’s last journey. in Larne, Co Antrim where I was Rector for three years, there was a carved lych gate, While modern, the original function of the gate was acknowledged in the words inscribed on it, words from Psalm 90, one of the psalm read at funeral services. ‘Teach us to number our days’ the words said; a reminder of our finite nature.
Like Psalm 23, better known to us through the metrical setting, ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’, Psalm 90 has become best known to us through its metrical form, ‘O God our help in ages past’, The words of the hymn, however, take the edge off the harshness of the psalm. The difference between them only became very apparent when visiting a parishioner in rural Ulster. The lady said her favourite hymn was ‘O God our help in ages past, a common favourite amongst members of the Unionist community. Not having a hymn book with me, I suggested I might read Psalm 90 before I left. Only as I read through the words did I realize how much Isaac Watts had adapted the words in the writing of the hymn.
Psalm 90 is a lament and we need to be able to lament, we need to be able to express our feelings. Even the church now seems afraid to allow people to express what they are feeling; the liturgical colour at funerals is not the purple of mourning but the white of resurrection. Yes, of course we believe in the resurrection, but we also need to recognize that people feel sadness and grief. We need to have words to say to God that we’re hurting and that we don’t know what to do.
Sometimes music can help us express thoughts that words cannot articulate. I remember a funeral I attended as a curate in Newtownards, Co Down. The man who had died had been a member of a local Scottish pipe band. As we walked from the gateway to the cemetery a piper walked ahead of us playing ‘Amazing grace’ and when we had completed the graveside prayers a lone piper stood about thirty yards from the gathering and played a lament. It was at once the most beautiful and the saddest piece of music I had ever heard.
Laments help us with our feelings, they help us to recognize the pain and the anguish we feel inside ourselves; they help us to see what it is that is causing us so much hurt.
Psalm 90 is written to describe the pain people felt inside themselves. In the original Hebrew version at the top it says, ‘A Prayer of Moses, the man of God’. The psalms were written centuries after Moses, but perhaps these words had been passed down from generation to generation from the time of the years in the wilderness.
Imagine being there in the wilderness: your people had escaped from Egypt in the hope of a better land and a better life and you were in this barren place, where no-one would wish to live, without any sign that life would ever improve. Forty years the people of Israel spent there, years when many of their people died and when they wondered a great deal about the God who brought them to this place.
The people of Moses’ time believed this life was the only one you would have; there was no hope of a world to come where things would be put right. Living in daily danger of disease or sudden death, people would have been very aware off their own mortality, so they feel they deserve a reward before it is too late. When we look at Psalm 90, we see it has three sections: verses one to six speak of the immortal and eternal nature of God. God is a God who has been God to his people generation after generation; he is the God who was there before the creation of the world; he is the God to whom time is nothing at all, ‘For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday’, says the psalmist.
I once heard a story about the eternal nature of God.
There was a man who went out for a walk when he met God walking the other way. They fell into conversation and the man asked God, ‘Is it true that a million years in your sight are like one minute?’
‘Yes’, said God, ‘it is true’.
‘Well’ said the man, ‘is it, then, also true that a million Euro to you is just like a single cent?’
‘Yes,’ said God ‘I suppose it is’.
‘In that case’, said the man, ‘do you think you could spare me a cent?’
‘Certainly’, said God ‘if you would just wait there for a minute’.
The story makes the point that our time is as nothing compared to God’s eternity; our life is brief and fleeting, a short story. ‘Our years come to an end like a sigh’, says the psalmist in verse nine; ‘for they soon pass away and we are gone’ he complains in verse ten.
The middle section of the Psalm 90, verses seven to twelve, concludes with the piece of practical wisdom, recalled by the church gate inscription, ‘So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom’. If our life is brief, it is important to make every day count, it is important to wisely use every moment available.
The third section of the psalm, verses 13-17 is a plea to God to give his favour and blessing to people; ‘how long will you delay?’ asks the writer. God is requested to ‘Satisfy us with your loving-kindness in the morning, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days’. There is a desire that God would make up to people for the time they have lost: ‘Give us gladness for the days you have afflicted us, and for the years in which we have seen adversity’ says verse 15. It sounds almost an instruction to God, as if the psalmist is saying, ‘God, I know you are a just God and because you are a just God, then you must compensate us for the bad times we have endured’.
But what if people don’t receive the reward they deserve? What if there are no good times to make up for the bad times? What does it say about God when people don’t receive justice?
Isaac Watts can see the problem that Psalm 90 raises. It is a psalm written centuries before Jesus. It is a psalm that is not filled with the Christian hope of everlasting life so when he is writing his hymn he uses only one part of the hymn and adds one important line to it. The first and last verses end with four words the people of Israel would not have understood, ‘And our eternal home’. God is not just the God of time, he is God of eternity. Jesus came to bring us life in time and in eternity.
‘Teach us to number our days’ is not about gloom and despondency, it’s about joyful confidence that our days and our lives are in God’s hands; God has been our God from one generation to another and will be our eternal home.
May we live each day in the presence of the Lord and may our days bring us to his eternal presence.